The Private Sea
"Four o'clock, and all's wrong."
So says the voice on the tape recorder as I listen to it now. My voice.
Having been reminded often enough of those schoolmen who would not look through Galileo's telescope, I participated in a psychedelic experiment on May 16, 1966, at the Ridgeway psychiatric hospital in Chicago. Present were Dr. A. I. Jackman, a psychiatrist; Dr. Herbert Maltz, clinical director of the hospital, and a psychedelic guide I shall refer to here as Jim. We used Huxley's drug, mescaline, because LSD at that time had been taken off the legal market. The two produce identical effects, I was told, the only difference being that a much stronger dosage is required in the case of mescaline, which is administered in milligrams rather than micrograms. I was first given a thorough medical examination, including an electrocardiogram, and we then retired to a small but pleasantly furnished consultation room on the second floor of the hospital, where the drapes were drawn against the afternoon sunlight. At 2 P.M. Dr. Jackman handed me a paper cup of water and five white capsules, each of them containing seventy milligrams of mescaline; a half-hour later I took two more capsules, for a total dose of 490 milligrams.
Nothing happened for more than an hour.
Before going further, I should speak very briefly about myself and various subjective factors which may have influenced my reaction to the drug. While I had always been interested in the implications of religious perception, I was not normally given to mystical states of mind; some slight significance might be attached here, however, to a phenomenon I had experienced occasionally since early childhood. This would happen once or twice a year, I suppose, and would last ten or fifteen seconds at most. In moments of abstraction, my immediate environment would suddenly appear to take on a new and wordless meaning I could not define; time would stop, all objects would lose their names, and the world would seem somehow peaceful and perfect. The landscape would first appear to blur, as if the film in a movie projector had jumped its track, and then it would come clear again in a slightly different focus: it would look quite the same as before, but in some subtle way its meaning would have changed. Just how is hard to say.
I had always had vivid memories of my infancy, including a few sunlit memories of the cradle itself in the very first days of my life, and the experience often reminded me of those pristine recollections—of that holy time, at the dawn of life, when I lay innocent in sunbeams. Curiously, certain pieces of music would often serve to evoke the experience: Clair de lune, for one, which I always associated with sunlight, and "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart." I never supposed that the experience was important, and I never mentioned it to anybody, although I did give it a name. I called it "the Shift." I had never heard of a peak experience, of course, and maybe it was something of the sort; maybe it was a pint-size satori. In any case, it occurred less frequently as I grew older. I became a newspaperman, and newspapermen are not very mystical. I was taught to be critical and objective, and I was prepared to be both when I swallowed the seven capsules.
The atmosphere of a psychiatric hospital was far from ideal for a psychedelic setting, but I knew at least that I was in good hands should anything go wrong, and I felt no apprehension whatever about taking the drug. In fact, I had been looking forward to it. I had read many accounts of good trips and bad trips, and I fully expected to experience an ego loss, but that prospect didn't trouble me. Finally, I should point out that I had recently been reading a fair amount of Eastern literature, and indeed I had just reread the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
After about seventy minutes, Jim told me, "You look different." I asked him in what way I looked different, and he said, "You're somehow younger." I smiled and pointed to a framed picture hanging on one wall. "That water stain on the left-hand side of the glass," I said. "Was that there before?"
"I think something is beginning to happen to you," said Dr. Jackman.
Twenty minutes later I felt a numbness creeping over my body, and I said that I seemed to be losing my muscular control. "But again, nothing special." I yawned and added: "That's interesting. The coffee in this cup looks green . . . sort of a greenish cast to it." I had been chain-smoking cigarettes, and I told Jim apologetically: "I don't want to put out the last cigarette. I'm such a smoker. I keep thinking just one more cigarette before . . ." Jim reached down and switched on a tape recorder, filling the room with symphonic music set at low volume. That annoyed me for some reason. It seemed prearranged. "Jim," I told him, "your whiskers have got a greenish tint to them."
I had been sitting on a long couch, my knees crossed, head nodding. I felt so weak and listless, as if I hadn't slept for days. "Jim," I said, "did you usually start with visual things? I've been waiting for colors." I looked down at my tweed jacket and my green-and-white striped shirt, then farther down at my crossed legs. Black pants, black socks, black shoes. The only trouble was, the legs weren't mine. They looked alien and somehow sinister. I knew they were attached to my body, and I knew I could move them, but they weren't my legs. They weren't me. Or better yet, I wasn't them. It was just as if I were looking at the legs of some stranger sitting next to me in a bar, or on a train. So primly crossed. So black. And the silk-hosed ankles, so damned self-satisfied. I didn't like them at all. "I didn't think my legs looked like that," I said. "I thought they looked different . . . but the point is, I'm about one quarter-inch outside myself now. That's how I feel, I mean. I'm sitting here, but I've also moved about a quarter-inch outside my body, and that's why I can look at my body now and see it just the same way other people see it. Funny, too. I'd expected all these visual things first. Colors . . . jewels."
So tired. So numb. Just one more cigarette.
Jim helped me off with my jacket and shoes, and I stretched out on the couch. I complained again about my lack of motor control, and Dr. Maltz had me tug at his fingers and then press my open palm against his palm in an effort to resist it. "You have not actually lost any strength," he said. Then he tested me with a pin, jabbing at the back of my hand with the dull end and sharp end. I told him each time which end it was, and finally I said, "That hurt—but so what?" I felt the pain, but it didn't matter.
Jim had turned up the music. The whole long-playing tape seemed to be Beethoven, and I didn't like it. The Eroica in particular sounded ponderous and threatening. Nothing human there; it was pure mathematics, written on Olympus. "Feel good," I said. "Feel different. It's like, ah . . ." I opened my eyes. "I feel like I got great big hands. You know? When I open my eyes, I'm back in the room. And everything looks normal. When I close them, though, I feel sort of disembodied. And I'm not sure yet which way I want to go. Maybe I'd rather stay here and watch it happen. I have the feeling I'd drift off if I closed my eyes. It's just a question of whether I want to get disembodied or not. I have the feeling that . . . I have the feeling that . . . It's very relaxing. Especially in the small of the back. It's like I'm floating in clouds without any body, and it's very nice to get rid of your body. I feel this loss of weight and loss of tension, like it all ran out of me. Especially in the small of the back. That's where I'd localize it. It's like I drank a hundred martinis without passing out. Still able to think and remember. It's like being drunk without being drunk. You know? But just the same, I don't feel all that great . . . feel different."
I rolled to one side and started to repeat the first-person pronoun, nominative case. "I, I, I . . . I, I, I . . . I, I, I . . . Ai, Ai, Ai . . . Yi, Yi, Yi . . . Ai-Yi-Yi-Yi . . . Yo, Yo, Yo . . . Yo, Yo, Yo . . . Spanish for I . . . Yo, Yo, Yo . . . Yo-Yo, Yo-Yo . . . capitalized trademark . . . Duncan Yo-Yo . . . That's it, we're all Duncan Yo-Yos. Spanish word for I, means we're all a bunch of Yo-Yos. Up and down on a string. Conclusive proof of Leary's Game Theory.... But not really, of course."
Struck by a sudden thought, I sat up in alarm.
"What happened?"' I asked. "What happened to all the other people?"
I was still puzzling that over when my gaze fell again on the cold black dregs in my coffee cup. I stuck a finger in the coffee and became a continuum with it and the plastic cup. "Ah, it feels so good . . . so good. I feel real good. Dr. Jackman, you're a Yo-Yo." I knew I was being obnoxious, and I didn't like that, either. "When does everything start to get exquisite?" I asked. "Nothing I expected has happened yet. This is a bore, so far." I fell back helplessly on the couch, and Dr. Jackman told me, "You're just at the beginning." "The beginning?"
I drifted off, mumbling incoherently, and the doctors left. I was alone now with Jim. "Poor little world," I said. "Poor little world . . . poor little world." Later I opened my eyes and found that Jim had gone, too. I sat up and looked around for him, rubbing my eyes with my fists. But the room was deserted.
"Jim? Did you go away, Jim, or are you really here? Maybe you're still here, and I just can't see you. Could it actually happen? Of course it couldn't. But then, how can I tell? I'm under the influence of a drug. Oh, you shouldn't have gone away, Jim. Did you go away, or didn't you? Are you there, Jim? Where are you?"
The door opened. Jim came in.
"I went to the washroom," he said. "Is something the matter?"
"No," I said. "Everything's fine."
A nurse brought us a meal, which we ate at the desk. Corned beef hash, apricots, sliced pickles, and another pot of coffee. I shoveled the food down impersonally, much as you would stoke a furnace, and the process of eating seemed highly humorous. Biting into the pickles, I could sense their molecular structure; I had a mouth full of cells and atoms, I thought, and I could feel my teeth grinding them about. How ridiculous chewing was. It would have been much easier, I thought, simply to slip the pickles in through my ribs. I knew it wouldn't work if I tried it, but I thought nevertheless that it should work. After all, there was no such thing as a solid; there were only those spinning atoms, which in turn were only sparks of energy (whatever that was), and the emptiness of the atomic inner space must surely be calculated in millions and billions of micromiles. I stuck my finger in the coffee again—it was hot this time, but that didn't matter—and I imagined that the end of my finger had disappeared. I laughed and said that Huxley hadn't turned into a coffee cup, had he? I, on the other hand, had just turned into a coffee cup. Which is to say, I and the coffee cup were the same thing, really; where the one ended, the other began. The coffee cup, you might say, had turned into me. Certainly the pickles and hash had turned into me, and those Hindus clearly had known what they were talking about: it was all a case of food living on food, and after that becoming food.
After the meal I lay down again and shut my eyes. In the darkness of my mind I saw a Technicolor display of weird-looking growths waving about, like plants in a current at the bottom of the sea. There were stalks and sponges and fan-shaped objects: pink and green and purple. I thought I might wander around down there for several centuries, and I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to. I thought about my family, and it didn't seem fair to go away so long and leave them behind—like Rip Van Winkle. What if they needed me for something, and what if they were all dead when I finally came back? "Those are organisms," I said, imagining now that I had recognized the growths. "I am looking inside my own eyeball. And those all are parts of my eyeball."
Then I lay still for a time, drifting, and Jim supposed that I was past the point of no return, comfortable and happy. Coming up quietly, he slipped a set of stereophonic earphones onto my head, the big foam-rubber phones snapping over my ears in a snug fit. A majestic Beethoven chord exploded inside my brain, and I instantly disappeared. My body no longer existed, and neither did the world. The world and I had been utterly annihilated. I could feel the pressure of the earphones; but in the space between the phones, where my head should have been, there was absolutely nothing . . . nothing! I was Mind alone, lost in an icy blue grotto of sound. There was only the music, and then bright colors that turned out to be musical notes. The notes danced along a silver staff of music that stretched from one eternity to another, beyond the planets and stars and space itself. Red notes. Blue notes. But they had no substance or dimension, and nothing was real in that empty cavern between the two earphones. That unbounded abyss. The music rolled on in orgiastic waves of sound and color, and then I myself was one of the notes. I was being swept along on the silver staff, at twice the speed of light, rushing farther and farther away from my home back there in the Milky Way. In desperation, at the last possible moment, I reached up with hands I did not own, and I tore off the earphones.
I was back in the room. But from that point on, it went wrong.
I sat in a chair, staring at the floor. Jim pulled back the drapes, filling the room with the last light of day. Outside in the streets I could hear auto horns honking, and once a fire engine went by. I felt a terrible depression rising slowly from the bottom of my soul.
"Even out here where I am," I said, "I don't know what's going on." Nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew anything.
It seemed to me that my sense of self was completely gone now. It had been ripped away by the music, and I had come back without it. Although I knew nothing, I felt that some awful truth was about to be revealed to me. It was lurking somewhere just beyond the borders of my comprehension, and very soon now I should have to come face to face with it.
I studied the room, and I realized that I now formed a continuum with everything in sight. The room seemed to shimmer in the dying rays of sunlight, and I was aware once more of the atomic substructure that underlay the visible world of the senses. It struck me that the visible world was wholly real, and in no way a deception, but it nevertheless had this underlying structure which glowed and pulsed like a living force. And it all ran together in a single composition. This is hard to describe, and the only analogy I can think of is in painting—for example, Seurat's huge pointillist canvas, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte." The figures on the grass are real enough, and there is a logic to their placement and development; if you look closely, however, you will see that the figures and the grass and the sparkling water are all composed of tiny dots of color, and these dots all blend together to form a single scene and a single reality. The lady with her parasol looks out at the sailboats on the water, and she imagines perhaps that they are far away and separate; but everything on the canvas is inexorably locked together in one flowing creation, and the lady in fact is an extension of the parasol, water, and boats. I thought of that canvas as I sat in the room, drugged out of my mind, and it seemed to me that I was locked into my scene just as inexorably as Seurat's figures were locked into theirs. Dots of energy or dots of paint, it was all the same. But even this seemed unsatisfactory, the more I thought of it, and then I remembered those Van Gogh canvases in which sky and earth swirl together like magnetic force fields. "That's it," I thought. "The reality that flows . . . much better than dots." And I pitied poor Van Gogh, if that was his constant perception. Those raging cypress trees, like tongues of green flame licking at the heavens—those whirling suns. No wonder he cut off his ear.
I tried to explain it to Jim.
"Instead of trying to figure it out," he said, "just try to feel what's happening."
But I didn't like what was happening. I was starting to remember something, and it seemed to have some connection with sunlight and a cradle. But what could it be? Then it came to me that I was gradually remembering my own identity, like an amnesia victim who slowly recovers his past. Finally it all fell together, and I remembered who I was. And it was so simple, really. I was life. I was Being. I was the vibrant force that filled the room, and was the room. I was the world, the universe. I was everything. I was that which always was and always would be. I was Jim, and Jim was me, and we were everybody else; and everybody else was us, and all of us put together were the same thing, and that same thing was the only thing there was. We were not God. We were simply all that there was, and all that there was wasn't God. It was us, alone. And we were each other, and nowhere anywhere was there anything else but us, and we were always the same, the one and only truth.
"Jim," I said, "can you get me out of this?"
"Uh-huh. You want to try it another half-hour?"
"Yes," I said. "Let's try it another half-hour."
Having been reunited with the Ground of my Being, I wanted urgently to be estranged from it again as quickly as possible. But I tried to hold on, at least for a while, and I tried to laugh at the terrifying idea that was building up in my mind. "I don't want to be God," I said. "I don't even want to be city editor." But it did no good to laugh, and I stopped trying. Of course I wasn't God, I knew that. But I was All That There Was, and I didn't want to be that, either. It was dark now, and I could hear children playing somewhere outside the hospital— under a street lamp, no doubt—and their lonely voices filled me with sadness. The children, I thought. The children, and Jim, and me: we were all the God there was. And it was sad and awful, because I wanted there to be a God. For the children at least, if not for me. But the loss of God was not the worst of it; there was something far worse even than that. The loss of my little self was not the worst of it; nor indeed did I regret that at all. It was not what I had lost. It was what I had gained. I had gained the whole universe, it seemed, and that was more than I could cope with—more than I could bear.
I didn't want it.
But who was I, who didn't want it? I was Everybody, the Self. And now I knew what the little selves were for, I thought. They were a fiction designed to protect the Self from the knowledge of its own Being—to keep the Self from going mad. For surely, without them, the Self might be driven to insanity by the thought of its own audacity, and the thought of its loneliness, and the thought as well of the danger it was in. And it was in danger, I knew that perfectly well. Since it was All That There Was, there was nothing to assure it of its own immortality. And in fact, I could sense, there was that which resisted both its Being and Becoming. And this something was nothing more than Nothingness itself, against which the Self had exerted its will to Become. Thus the ontic anxiety, as Tillich expressed it: the ultimate fear of ultimate non-Being. Or so it seemed, as I struggled with my seven demons; and translating the Self into selves once more, I imagined that I now understood with perfect clarity the meaning of a passage that had always haunted me in Unamuno's story of the good priest Don Emmanuel. That saintly man had preached to his flock the word of God and the message of salvation, which gave them great joy. There were those, however, who perceived that Don Emmanuel himself was a tormented soul, and one day, while walking in the countryside, a villager named Lazarus begged the priest to tell him the truth—the truth above all! And all a-tremble, Don Emmanuel whispered into the ear of him who had asked: "The truth? The truth, Lazarus, is perhaps something so unbearable, so terrible, something so deadly, that simple people could not live with it!"
Now I thought that I knew this truth: the deadly and unbearable truth that nobody created us . . . we created ourselves. That was the horror that we could not live with, I thought— anything rather than that—and I raved to Jim: "Tell the truth now, Jim. There is no God, is there? Oh God. It's awfully hard. Why does life have to be so hard? Why can't everything be nice? Oh God . . . God. I don't want life to be this way. Oh God, I can't face this. I'm not ready. I'm not ready. I don't have what it takes. I don't have the courage to meet it."
Jim said: "It's an illusion we build up from the time we're little kids. We don't often encounter—"
Shut up! "It's too soon, too soon. Too soon, I tell you. Oh God, we're not supposed to look at this. Not now. Maybe in a million years, or a billion years, or ten billion years. But not now, not yet. It was wrong to do this. The drug . . . not right . . . we shouldn't be fooling with . . ." My voice trailed off, and I thought about Freud. I thought that Freud didn't know what he was talking about, and the unconscious was very simple, really: the unconscious was this knowledge I now had of ultimate Being, and our repressions of it had their roots in an existential terror, not neurosis. It was real, and it was horrifying. It was more than most of us could accept, and thus we took refuge in smaller identities and well-defined roles, creating a limited world we could comfortably live in, pretending all the time there was Something Else. But there was nothing else, and deep down inside us we knew it, and we suffered. It took courage to Be, just as Tillich said, and most of us didn't have that courage. So we rejected our Being—and not by killing ourselves, because death was impossible, but by denying our real identity. By refusing to face what we actually were.
"Jim," I said, "we're all there is."
"That's right, buddy boy."
"God, you're tough. You don't look it, but you're really tough. I just wish that I . . . Jim . . . Can you get me out of this?"
"Sure. Want to try another half-hour first?"
"All right. Another half-hour."
All That There Was. But even this—even this—was not the worst of it. I said that I was frightened by what I had gained, and this was true. But I had lost something, too, and it was more important to me than my wretched self, and more important even than God. For along with my own self I had lost all the other selves as well. I had lost other people. And I missed them very much.
I wanted there to be someone else. Anyone else. And if there had been just two of us—really two of us—and we two were All That There Was, that would not have been so hard. But there was no one else; there was only the One.
Sitting in that room, I could hear church bells ringing somewhere, a long way off, and I imagined that they were Christmas bells. I thought of the holiday season, and the crowds thronging the downtown streets in the winter night, and the stores all aglow like boxes of light. Snow falling, and carols playing on the loudspeakers. And everyone with a home to go to, and someone there to meet him, and maybe to love him. But someone else, in any case. I was not feeling sentimental about Christmas as such; I was thinking rather about the crowds of people—all of them real, all of them different. And I missed them so, the people. More than myself, more than God, more than anything.
It wasn't right, I thought.
"Jim," I said, "get me out of this."
So he got the Thorazine, and he got me out of it. And the doctors let me go home, where there was someone to meet me.
"I'm not going to hurt anybody," I said. "I'm just going to hurt."
I did, too, for several days. Then the mood wore off, and I went back to the world I knew, and I worked in it. Sometimes I would catch glimpses of that different world I had seen in the hospital room, and I would wonder if the experience was going to start all over again. But it never did. There was only one time, when I was flying alone in a little airplane, high over the Illinois prairie. Shut up in the cabin, I felt suddenly trapped and afraid, and more alone than I cared to be. But I dropped down out of the clouds to a lower altitude, and I opened a window, and the feeling passed.
Looking back on the experience, I recall several things. For one, I never forgot that I was under the influence of a drug. For another, I was never wholly convinced that the drug's revelations were true; even during the best moments and worst moments, a part of me warned that the truth might lie elsewhere, and I suppose this was my reporter's instinct expressing itself. For example, the monistic phase might well have been initiated by my momentary panic when Jim left me alone in the room. And my pre-experience reading could perhaps explain my failure to detect any hint of a transcendent reality. Also, I remember a persistent conviction that the experience itself was wrong. Not false, necessarily, but wrong. For some unguessed reason, I felt, it would be better for us not to seek the experience, at least at this time. And finally, whether my phantoms were real or unreal, I regret my cowardice in the face of them: I have the feeling somehow that they might have appeared much friendlier had it been in my power really to confront them.
I include this epilogue simply as an item of interest, if it is, and certainly not as a testament. Obviously there were too many unknown factors involved to draw any conclusions from the experience, and for my part I have not drawn any conclusions. Nevertheless, and just the same, it is something to think about. I shall think about it for the rest of my life.